Tim Berners-Lee: selling private citizens’ browsing data is ‘disgusting’

Tim Berners-Lee: selling private citizens’ browsing data is ‘disgusting’
As the world wide web creator accepts the prestigious Turing award, he talks to Sam Thielman about the US Congress’s rollback of privacy rules and fake news
By Sam Thielman in New York
Apr 4 2017

The Trump administration’s decision to allow internet service providers (ISPs) to sign away their customers’ privacy and sell the browsing habits of their customers is “disgusting” and “appalling”, according to Sir Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the world wide web.

Talking to the Guardian as he was declared recipient of the prestigious Association for Computing Machinery’s AM Turing award on Tuesday, Berners-Lee expressed mounting concerns about the direction of the internet he did so much to promote.

Berners-Lee expressed particular concern for the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to scrap an Obama-era rule that would have prevented ISPs from harvesting their customers web logs. “That bill was a disgusting bill, because when we use the web, we are so vulnerable,” he said.

Berners-Lee also discussed Republican politicians’ plans to roll back the so-called net neutrality protections that are the backbone of an open internet, how his own legacy intersects with the great Alan Turing’s, and the astonishing progress of the web since he launched the very first website on 1 August 1991.

Berners-Lee has spent years fighting to protect an open internet and against privatization of personal data. The 51-year-old prize could scarcely go to a more appropriate recipient. Turing’s innovations helped to standardize computing, and Berners-Lee helped to make standardized conversation between computers possible for the layman. Berners-Leewill accept the award on 24 June at a ceremony in San Francisco.

Sir Tim, congratulations on the award.

It is a great honor, isn’t it? In computer science it is the honor. It’s incredible when you look at the giants of the field, the computer science researchers of the past, it’s a great honor to be put on the end of that list. Alan Turing – we can’t celebrate him too much, for lots of reasons but partly because his idea for computers which you could program and then it was really up to you what you did with them.

Your family are also computer scientists, is that right?

My parents met building the first computers in the UK. My mum has been called the first commercial computer programmer.

Did you have any notion of how radically information technology would change the world? I don’t know if anyone conceived of the way it would change everything from finance to journalism.

The idea was that it was universal and there should be no boundaries to it. There should be a sense that you can put anything on it: you can put scribbled notes on it, you can put beautiful artwork on it, and you can connect them together so people can go back later and see a connection between the scribbled note and the artwork it became. And you should be able to link to anything, and so you should be able to put anything on the web. That was the driving force behind the design, and motivation for trying to get people onboard. 

You remember that before the web there were bulletin boards. A bulletin board was a system where you could just leave a computer sitting at home connected to a telephone line, and people could dial up from their computers and they could exchange messages. The computers would allow people to email each other and have discussions without any central authority or central system. So even before the web, there was this utopian dream that people connected by technology could aspire to better things, and that we could have, because electronics and communications didn’t recognize borders.



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